Stories With Heroic Imagination and The Meaning of Memoir

I spent an entire afternoon at the library and discovered the humanity and warmth of stories written as a memoir with heroic imagination. This kind of narrative–the use of a hero or heroine–is one of the oldest and most compelling methods of holding someone’s attention: everyone wants to be told a story in narrative form. 

For years, I focused on the stories of people living in conflict and realized in later years that every story is riddled with conflict. Every story has an arc. Every story has a character struggling to do something or to be someone else. The same simplistic principle lies within the stories of and by violent extremists.

However, extremists’ literature is neither inspirational, motivational, or meaningful except to those who accept the virulent message. Sadly, even extremists portray themselves as the ‘hero’ of our times, though their so-called heroic acts are curdled with jealousy and rage–a hungry emotion–that is both exhaustive and empty of empathy.

In the early part of my career, I remember hardened extremist men daring to use the most intimate forms of expression–journals, diaries, letters and memoirs–which they drafted in prison. Some of these men shared their writings with intelligence officers, hoping to broaden their message and reach the outside world. However, their secret writings and personal histories of violence remained classified. Even now. 

In his seminal book On Writing Well, William Zinsser defines a good memoir as:

Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.

The extremists’ perverted truth exists in memoir. While few memoirs have actually been written by extremists, their stories are preserved in other ways. For example, most detainees, without a pen or with no ability to write, use oral expression to share and spread their ideas with others in closed quarters. Theirs is a twisted ‘literary’ circle of disturbed, disillusioned, and dedicated soothsayers. As Zinsser writes: 

The crucial ingredient in memoir is, of course, people. 

Who are the people that inspire violent extremists? Oddly, they are the same people who inspire moderate, mainstream Muslims. The heroes and heroines of Muslim history are protectors of the Prophet of Islam–they are the defenders of faith. The four rightly-guided Caliphs; the wives and children of the Prophet; the famous son-in-law and cousin Ali; the Caliphs of previous dynasties, to name a few. Their notable lives are retold and remembered by moderates and maniacs.

The death of the heroes springs life and out of death new birth or a place in Paradise. 

The extremists’ narrative involves a sublimation of war. It is the act of reproducing and reinventing the past into a mythical story–a fantasy of figures reborn to reclaim the glory of Islam in present times. Undoubtedly, extremists fight for a plethora of reasons and I have been writing and speaking on this topic for nearly two decades.

The truth is there is no one reason to join a violent organization and for women, it’s always personal. 

Therefore, the extremists’ vision of themselves and their so-called heroes and heroines are like the mythological Serpent King described by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth. He writes: “Now the snake in most cultures is given a positive interpretation. In India, even the most poisonous snake, the cobra, is a sacred animal, and the Serpent King is the next thing to Buddha. The serpent represents the power of life engaged in the field of time, and of death, yet eternally alive. The world is but its shadow–the falling skin.”

And so, the extremists’ story continues to be written and rewritten by the propagandists, ideologues, and leaders. Anyone alive to tell the story of their earthly heroes, giving them new life and new meaning much like a memoir that helps us understand the life and death of people.

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